BWW Interviews: Sue Massek in PRECIOUS MEMORIES

Musician Sue Massek, photographer Daniel CostonPRECIOUS MEMORIES, A new musical starring Sue Massek of the legendary Reel World String Band is coming to the Evening Muse on Sunday, November 17, at 7:00PM, located at 3227 North Davidson Street (NODA) in Charlotte. Tickets on sale at

This show tells the story of Sarah Ogan Gunning, an eastern Kentucky singer and songwriter, who lived through the coal mining strikes of the '20's and '30's. This 90-minute musical was written for Massek by songwriter, writer and activist, Si Kahn.

I spoke to Massek about her mentor, Sarah Ogan Gunning, her instrument of choice, her banjo and her colorful past.

LAW: Tell me a little about yourself and where you come from?

SM: I come from Kansas. It's an odd journey I've had. My father fiddled at square dances and my mother was also a musician and played at barn dances. She had a guitar in my lap at 3 [years-old] listening to the Grand Ole Opry. I grew up on music from that area. When the folk boom happened, I could relate from '68 on. I sang at the Jericho strike with snipers on the hills. To help diffuse the tension, I started singing "Oh you can't scare me I'm sticking to the union", from the song, "Union Maid". My knees were shaking so bad, it gave my voice an extra vibrato. And I hitchhiked to West Virginia where Don West, cofounder of the Highlander Folk School, took me under his wing. Rosa Parks was trained there for her historic role in the civil rights movement.

LAW: What sparked your interest in Sarah Ogan Gunning?Songwriter Sarah Ogan Gunning

SM: I knew Sarah. She was a mentor of my group, the Reel World String Band. She was inspiring. We admired her for her music of social justice. I wanted to create a reenactment of her life on stage. She had such a hard life. She was strong and she persevered through horrible, horrible conditions. She was a coal miner's wife. She lost two of her children to starvation. She had to leave Kentucky to save her other two. Later her music was rediscovered and she went on to sing at Carnage Hall.

LAW: Si Kahn wrote this musical about Gunning for you. How did that come about?

SM: Ever since I heard Si's first album, I've greatly admired him. I've played dozens of his songs and recorded some. He is one of the few writers who writes so well from a woman's point of view. In 1985 we met and played music together in Lexington [Kentucky]. We were musicians and activists during the broad form deed amendment.

LAW: What was the broad form deed?

SM: Landowners gave up their rights to land. Large corporations held the deeds and had broad rights to strip mine the land. The Kentucky people lost their homes and their way of life. The amendment was passed and changed that. It was during that time that I met Si.

LAW: Did you ask Si to write the play?

SM: Si was doing a residency at the University of Kentucky last year. We performed together and after, we went to dinner. I mentioned my wish to portray Gunning. The next day, Si called and asked if he could write the musical for me. I was so excited. That was in November and he finished it in December.

Sue Massek as Sarah Ogan Gunning, photographerLAW: How do you capture Gunning's spirit in the play?

SM: I remember her spirit. I would go to Highlander gatherings and I first saw her perform at a Smithsonian Festival. She was this grandmother standing there singing a cappella, "I Hate the Capitalist System" (laughs). She sometimes played the banjo with 2 finger picking. I do that in the show. She was an inspiration to legends like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger, all who sang about social injustice.

LAW: What will audiences take with them?

SM: Sarah's lyrics and music are contemporary in many ways. She sang about working people. Sarah's life mission is the situation we find ourselves in today. I want the world to know about her.

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